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World’s first Muslim superheroes, the 99, out to conquer the West
By Rhys Blakely ("The Times," August 20, 2009)

Mumbai, India - They are fighting for truth, justice and the Islamic way and are heading for your living room — prepare to say salaam to the world’s first Muslim superheroes.

Despite the ample wrongs waiting to be righted across the Middle East, Superman, Spider-Man and Batman mainly fight evil in America. When the East has featured as a setting for superhero antics — as in the recent film Iron Man — it has tended to be as a source of villainy.

That is about to change, courtesy of The 99, a Sharia-compliant version of the X-Men that has taken the Arab world by storm and has its sights set on the West.

The franchise, which was created as a cartoon strip three years ago to counter the effects of jihadist agitprop on Muslim minds, is poised to make its debut on British television this year. An animated series is being produced by Endemol, the Dutch company that made Big Brother internationally ubiquitous. Its mission: to instil old-fashioned Islamic values in Christian, Jewish and atheist children.

The story follows a group of preternaturally gifted Muslims: The 99, each with a superpower that mirrors one of the 99 attributes of Allah.

The cast includes Jabbar, a Saudi Arabian Hulk-type figure with an improbable physique, and Darr the Afflicter, a paraplegic American who can manipulate nerve endings with his mind to trigger pain. There is also a character in a burka — Batina the Hidden.

The resulting franchise — a blend of fact, classic “kapow”-style action and Dan Brown-esque hokum — has proved a hit from Morocco to Indonesia and was branded recently one of the top 20 trends sweeping the world by Forbes magazine.

Beneath the rollicking storylines, however, there is a serious subtext. The man behind The 99 is Dr Naif al-Mutawa, a Kuwaiti who was a clinical psychologist previously.

Dr al-Mutawa said that the idea came to him while he was riding in a black cab in London from Edgware Road to Harrods, but its seed was sown years before when he worked at the survivors of political torture unit in Bellevue Hospital, New York. Many of the young men he treated were Iraqis who had fled after being tortured under Saddam Hussein’s regime.

“It hit me that the stories I was hearing were from men who grew up believing that their leader, Saddam, was a hero, a role model — only to one day be tortured by him,” Dr al-Mutawa said. “I decided the Arab world needed better role models.”

The conviction was reinforced by children’s literature that was circulating in the Middle East. When Dr al-Mutawa visited potential financial backers he took a newspaper article that described the popularity in Nablus, a city under the rule of the Palestinian National Authority, of a sticker book known as the Intifada Album.

It depicted weeping Palestinian mothers, Israeli tanks and wounded children. Captions included: “Let me die a martyr, my glorious homeland is calling.”

The book’s creator, a Hamas supporter who had sold 40,000 albums and 12 million stickers in four months, brushed off accusations that he was inciting hatred, saying: “There is no escaping the everyday reality of the intifada.”

Dr al-Mutawa, a father of five boys, disagreed. “This is not what I envisage for my children,” he said.

The 99 has faced resistance in the Middle East, particularly in Saudi Arabia, where it was only passed by the country’s censors when it gained financing from an Islamic bank with a Sharia board. There will never be 99 characters because it is forbidden to depict all of Allah’s attributes.

Despite its Islamic basis Dr al-Mutawa said that The 99 has universal appeal. He said: “It is based on attributes such as generosity and mercy. These are not things that Islam has a monopoly over.”


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